How to stop worrying and love your easy home-made compost

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: October 2nd, 2016 In: Gardening know how

Is there really such a thing as easy home-made compost?

Don’t you have to get the proportions right? And what about the long and complicated list of things you can and cannot put on the compost heap?

Lawn clippings, potato peelings and weeds are all the subject of compost arguments.

The easy way to make your own home-grown compost

A friend of mine accused her mother of caring more about her compost than she did about her grand-children. Her mother conceded that she was probably right.

The no-fuss approach to easy home-made compost

Simply treat your compost as a green dustbin. Put in all garden clippings and uncooked fruit and veg. Tea bags, coffee grounds and eggshells are fine, too. Garden expert and florist Charlotte Molesworth puts ‘everything’ into the compost, including old clothes. She doesn’t worry about proportions of green to woody material, and nor do I.

Don’t worry about potato peelings or woody material. If a potato does sprout, you can rip it out. Woody material will take longer to rot down, but it will get there. We do save proper branches for the fire.

Bee-hive compost bin

An attractive ‘bee-hive’ compost bin at the Abbey Physic Garden in Faversham.

If you can clearly see that lawn clippings are taking over, you can tear up newspaper and add it. I get shredded documents from a local accountancy firm. Reading occasional half-words is fascinating – I read the word ‘vice’ once, which was very exciting.

Shredded paper is good for compost.

There may be something wrong with your life if you find yourself reading your compost…could that be ‘naked funds’?

The only no-nos

Don’t put cooked food or raw meat, fish or dairy into your compost bin unless it’s sealed (like a Hotbin).

And there is a chance that weeds may grow again if you compost them when they’re still alive. Let them die before composting them, or send them to the public tip to be on the safe side.

Only put wood ash on the compost if you know there is no coal in it. Coal has dodgy chemicals.

Other things you don’t need to worry about

I worried about covering my compost bins, but if I do, the dog can use them as a springboard to get over the wall. There is a 20ft drop on the other side. So I don’t cover my compost. It doesn’t seem to have done it any harm.

I don’t think Charlotte Molesworth’s compost pile was covered when I saw it. And when I go garden visiting, I’ve noticed that there are big piles of uncovered compost in the corners of grand gardens.

Charlotte Molesworth's garden

Charlotte Molesworth has created one of the loveliest gardens in Kent. She throws ‘everything’ onto the compost pile.

An uncovered compost heap won’t be as hot, so will take longer to rot down, but the Really Lazy Composter won’t care how long the compost takes.

I don’t think leaving it uncovered has made it smell, either. Nor has it gone slimy.

I have also stopped worrying about the principle of having three bins. The idea is that you have one bin to fill with garden clippings, one that is maturing and one with usable compost. You rotate the bins.

We do have three bins, but I fill them with whatever I can cram in. They each have a flap at the bottom, so I can get the actual compost out of the bottom when it’s ready.

The easiest way to turn compost

A friend showed me how to turn compost with minimum effort. A few years later, I told him how useful his tip had been. He replied that he should probably have devoted more time to his marriage and less to compost. What is it with compost and gardeners?

The tip is to thrust your garden fork as deeply as possible into the compost pile. Move the handle around in ever-increasing circles. I lean all my weight against it to turn it, but there’s no pressure on my back.

Watch fascinated as the hole gets wider and the compost heap shrinks. Repeat in another part of the compost heap.

It would be good to do this weekly, but that is a counsel of perfection. This post is not about perfect compost. It’s about good enough compost.

If the compost bin looks full and you need some space, rotating the fork in it will usually reduce it nicely.

And another good cheat

Compost accelerator really does accelerate compost. It’s not the sort of thing I would normally bother with, as the Really Lazy Composter rarely wants to fiddle with measuring things out into watering cans.

However, Bio8 sent me some Envii compost accelerator tablets to review. This is a mix of seaweed, bacteria and fungi. I trialled it, using Envii in one compost bin and no accelerator in the other.

The compost in the Envii bin broke down noticeably faster. Both bins were mainly lawn clippings and shredded paper. I used the third bin for everything else, as I thought it was important to compare like with like.

Use a compost accelerator

Compost made mainly of lawn clippings and paper, accelerated by Envii, after about four months.

It’s such a relief that the trial has now ended. I can go back to stuffing everything in anywhere. I will continue to use compost accelerator because it clearly helps the larger, woodier pieces rot down more quickly.

Some experts say you can accelerate compost by adding handfuls of soil to it.

I have read that male urine also accelerates compost. I have urged Mr Middle-size to assist. He says he did it once, but felt so silly that he won’t be doing it again.

The compost not treated with Envii after four months.

The compost not treated with Envii after four months. It was much less rotted.

So compost really does make life simpler

If you can detach yourself from all the worries around compost, it really does make your life easier.

You don’t have to go to the tip with garden clippings so often. And if you run out of commercial potting compost, you can usually dig some home-made stuff out of the bottom of the bin.

In theory, you should sieve it. But that is another counsel of perfection. I have managed to pot on plants using my own home-made compost. They seem to have grown perfectly well.

Once a year, we do try to clear all the un-rotted material off the top of the bins. We then spread the rotted home-made compost on the vegetable beds.

That is quite a job. But it is only once a year.

Home-made compost saves you money

Larger gardens which have lots of clippings make lots of compost. Smaller gardens make much less compost.

Even if you compost everything you possibly can, I think it’s unlikely that you can make enough compost yourself to keep your soil happy.

So making your own compost doesn’t mean you won’t have to buy any. It does mean you will need to buy less. I’ve worked out that making our own compost saves us about £100 a year.

The Envii compost accelerator costs £9.95, which treated one large bin for the year, so if I treat three bins, that will reduce the savings to around £70 a year.

PS I was originally going to do a post about using green tomatoes. I looked up lots of recipes for Fried Green Tomatoes. They were delicious, although not particularly easy.

Green and red tomatoes

I spent all morning photographing green tomatoes. But they gave me terrible indigestion. I wanted to use at least one picture anyway. And please don’t mention Green Tomato Chutney anyone.

Green tomatoes are very highly acidic. I didn’t feel it would be right to encourage anyone else to try them although I know that in Birmingham, Alabama, there are cafes that cook 140lbs of green tomatoes a day.

The rest of my green tomatoes are going on the compost heap! At least I don’t feel I am wasting them. That’s another good thing about compost.

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17 Comments

  • Carla Black says:

    Thank you, Alexandra, for the no-nonsense guide to composting. I would add one more no-fuss bit of advice regarding when to use your black gold: spread it even though there might be a few lumps still under-decomposed. I believe there are more benefits than drawbacks of adding active microbes to your soil. Certainly one benefit is the peace of mind of the gardener: you can’t go wrong no matter how you manage your compost!

    • Excellent point. In fact, I do know people who put their old vegetable peelings straight into the beds, by-passing the compost bin entirely. However, I have a dog who will eat anything, so I need a certain amount of decomposition – although, as you say, it doesn’t need to be complete.

  • Jacqueline says:

    I am very proud of my compost making down at the allotment & am always careful about never putting any cooked or left over food stuffs on it. However I don”t turn it regularly but will now after a large rat ran up my arm last week when I was emptying the compost onto my raised beds. Still in shock!

  • Sue says:

    Hello Alexandra, your blog about composting really made me smile this morning, (especially the bit on reading your compost!). So thank you for that. Hope it’s a lovely autumn day to get out in the garden where you are, fabulous here in Cumbria today.

  • Catherine says:

    Thank you this was very helpful and reassuring for a novice!!

  • Carolyn says:

    What does compost accelerator actually contain?

  • Lyn King says:

    Re green tomatoes, a garden blogger I enjoy reading puts hers in brown paper bags in a drawer, I tried it this year and providing you don’t forget to check them it works a treat – and they tasted good. I look forward to my Sunday morning read, thank you.

    • That sounds great, although I may have triggered a sensitivity to tomatoes by eating the fried green ones. They were so delicious that I probably had one too many – so it serves me right, but I suspect I may not be able to face a tomato of any kind for a very long time.

  • Kathy Downes says:

    Very informative piece on Composting. Thank you. Had some success with mine this year. I found cardboard seemed to help and I also use an accelerator sometimes. What about keeping a covered bin damp? Should you add water regularly do you think?

    • I only add water if I think it is really looking dry. But mine is not perfect compost, it’s muddle-along compost – sloshing a bit of water in from time to time probably won’t harm it, and may do some good.

  • Julia says:

    Another really interesting blog, thank you.

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